Sunday, March 28, 2010

Upcoming visit to Syracuse

My Main Street Project will take me to Syracuse for meetings April 14th and 15th. I have been to Syracuse several times at the invitation of various members of the faculty at Syracuse University. Professor Sandy Lane (author of "Why are our babies dying?") hosted my visit after the publication of my book Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It. That was a great pleasure as I got to tour the neighborhoods and meet many good people working on behalf of their city. Then and on later visits I learned that Syracuse's downtown is challenged by the sundering of the connections to the nearby neighborhoods. This is a problem which can be found in many American cities, including Charlotte, NC, and Roanoke, VA. I am looking forward to meeting with various groups, and learning more about the ways in which Syracuse University is connecting with the city for mutual benefit. Syracuse is a great and noble American city and it is a delight to visit.

Pedestrian meters stop walking

I was walking on South Orange Avenue, in South Orange, NJ, yesterday, and at the major intersection there is a pedestrian meter, one of those buttons that people are supposed to press if they want to cross the street. These are annoying buttons. One has only to observe pedestrian behavior around such buttons to see that they present an obstacle to walkers. There are two such buttons near where I live in Jersey City, by Van Vorst Park, a lively, well-used park that attracts people from all around. The buttons work poorly, if at all, and for the most part, people just cross without pushing the button. In South Orange, the installation of such buttons on their Main Street raises some particular concerns. The buildings on the eastern part of South Orange Avenue, which has stores on one side of the street and a church on the other, are about half vacant. I don't know the reason for this, but the flow of walkers has to be considered. Putting another obstacle in the path of walkers is not a good idea for any shopping street. If there are problems with traffic in a downtown area, the cars should be slowed, and the pedestrians celebrated. We are in a crisis of inactivity and obesity in our nation in part because of a car-oriented mentality. Pedestrian meters are a sure sign of over-valuing cars.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ben and Jerry's Free Cone Day on Main Street

Palisades Avenue in Englewood, NJ, is one of the principal streets in my study of Main Streets. I am there a couple of times a week, and I was really glad I was scheduled to be there today when a student of mine pointed out that it was free cone day. Few events make people happier than free cone day. My granddaughter Lily went with her Spanish class after learning to say "Podemos ir a Ben and Jerry's por el dia de helado gratis?" She said that Ben and Jerry's in Hoboken, where she goes to school, had lots of happy people, including some high school seniors who were making repeat visits. In Englewood there was a great crowd. Palisades Avenue bears the patterns of old segregation, with people of color to the west, and white people to the east. Ben and Jerry's, perhaps this is not surprising, is on the eastern side. But today everybody was there, giggling in anticipation of the free treat. Why should free ice cream cause so much joy? Maybe because it's one of the true signs that spring has come, and maybe this, too, is not surprising. But that it is so pleasant it bends racial strictures must be a credit to those happy Vermont cows.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Saratoga's racing and bathing

Saratoga Springs, home of mineral springs and a famous racetrack, lends itself to two activities that couldn't be more opposite if they tried. Soaking in a mineral bath at the Saratoga Spa State Park, as I did yesterday, is the epitome of calm and relaxation. Add the "Almost Heaven" scented bath oil and you're there. What a contrast to the hustle and bustle of the racing scene, pounding thoroughbreds on the track and scheming wiseguys all around. I love the idea that for nearly 200 years people have been taking the train to Saratoga to take part in this peculiar intersection of fast and not. If racing is Saratoga's heart, its "Gut," according to the local signs, was a Jewish community that lived on the street parallel to Broadway, the city's Main Street. That neighborhood's independent spirit added another layer of complexity to the local system, creating a door for alternate cultures that is filled these days by peace activitists, coffee shops and folks singers, and a vital farmers market. Saratoga, with its Diamond Jim Brady Plaza and Olmsted Park, is a quirky mixture of cultural threads, defying easy categorization and oversimplification. I hope New York State straightens out its racing crisis so that the season and the city can continue to be this enjoyable yin/yang place.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ernest Thompson, Orange Organizer

My father, Ernest Thompson, was an organizer in Orange, NJ. He began his work there in 1957, when he started a campaign to desegregate the schools. This led to a successful effort to secure political representation for the black community. He and his colleagues used the power they had won to fight for quality education for all children. He said, at the outset of the school fight, "If we do not fight for all children, we will not fight at all." His commitment to inclusion helped to shape a better city. Thompson's life and work were celebrated at this year's Black History Month observation at Orange Middle School. Here is a film that was made for the occasion. The story of his organizing is told in the book, "Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People's Power."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Repairing Suburban Sprawl

Tom Hanchett, who is one of my favorite historians, sent this link about repairing sprawl in Charlotte. It is a lovely example of how a hostile corner can be pacified and made safe for walking. Tom Low, who's group did the work, leads a lively discussion group on urban issues and is constantly pushing the envelope for better city living.